Panic set in as soon as I got off my plane in Jakarta at the beginning of this trip. I had bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia and never bothered to look up the visa requirements. I got lucky. It turns out Americans can get visa on arrival in Indonesia and I happened to have $25 US in my pocket, which is the exact price of the visa. I usually do a good job of researching entry requirements now before I go somewhere, but sometimes I forget. As I was waiting in line at Mongolian immigration I began to think: "Everyone said Americans don't need a visa for Mongolia, but I never bothered to verify that myself." Again I was lucky. Entry requirements in Asia change frequently and often without notice. I've sweat before. "What if I don't get a visa for xxx? I've got a flight out of that country. What if they discover that all the documents I submitted were fake?"
When crossing by land from China to Kyrgyzstan you exit China about 120km inland from the actual border, and the border itself is a 20km no-mans land between the two countries. I left Kashgar for Kyrgyzstan with three French kids that I met in Turpan and a Bulgarian guy that they'd met in Kashgar. The Bulgarian guy and one of the French kids were on the last day of their Chinese visa so they couldn't afford any delays (it's almost $100 US per day if you overstay your visa). There's only two buses per week between the countries and they leave on Monday and Thursday. It was when we left so our only options were hitchhiking or taking a hired van. We decided to take a van to the Chinese border and then hitchhike from there.
The van dropped us off 5km away from the Chinese border and explained to the Bulgarian guy that he was leaving us short of our destination because we killed Osama and Saddam. He didn't know where any of us were from, just that we were white. The Kyrgyz-Chinese border isn't open on the weekends and there's a two hour time difference between China and Kyrgyzstan since China demands on having just one timezone for it's entire enormous country. To make matters worse, you're only allowed to take a hired vehicle—taxi or bus—across the border. We were stuck and the local taxi-mafia knew it. After much ado we made our way across the border. The Bulgarian guy went south to Tajikistan and the French kids and I continued to Osh, one of the larger cities in Kyrgyzstan.
A couple months ago one of my readers asked me to write an article about visa and immigration trouble. I thought about it for a while and got stuck so I decided to email the few other world travelers that I'd met on this trip and ask them for ideas/stories. None of them had had any real trouble or been denied from any country—I suspect that being from well-to-do places like America, Canada and Germany probably factor into that. One of the world travelers mentioned to me that his next stop was going to by Kyrgyzstan, so I stayed in Osh for the Kyrgyz independence day and then hightailed it to Bishkek to meet up with Walter.
You remember Walter, don't you? I met him almost one year ago in Indonesia. He's the guy that took this picture of me. This is what he looks like after getting ambushed by a praying mantis. He'd been traveling for a year when I met him and he's been traveling pretty much non-stop ever since. I rejoined with him in Bishkek at a hostel called Nomad's Home. When I arrived late at night the garden area was packed with people. I doubled the amount of people I'd met on this trip who had been or who were planning to travel for more than one year.
There's a reason for that; they were there to get visas. Recently China had shut down almost all visa services in Central Asia and word had spread quickly that Bishkek was the last hope. In the experienced travel community news spreads fast. In the course of a week, scores of travelers bused, biked and hitchhiked their way to Bishkek in hopes of getting permission to travel to distant and possibly better places. Most of the people were there for Chinese visas, but a few were there for Russian or other county visas. Without warning China decided to cut-off visa services in Bishkek as well. What did all the people in our guest house do? They mailed their passports back to their home country in hopes of getting a visa there.
The Russian visa is one of the hardest to get so most people don't even bother. If you're from some countries it's not even worth trying. An American guy at our guest house who biked from Greece to Kyrgyzstan said that after asking for a full travel itinerary, a color-copy invitation letter with an official seal and his birth certificate, they demanded that he have a Kyrgyzstan visa. American's don't need a visa for Kyrgyzstan, they just get a stamp in their passport which allows them to stay in the country for up-to 60 days. One couple at our guest house had a plane out of Bishkek on the 61st day from their entry and had to go through a lot of trouble to sort things out before their departure.
The fact of the matter is that visas suck and no one likes dealing with them. I'm very much looking forward to traveling the Schengen countries where hopefully I won't have to see immigration officials for a good long while. For me and the other people at Nomad's Home, visas are a first-world problem and we really shouldn't complain, but my friends from some of the places I've visited have real horror stories about getting rejected visas or turned around from places upon arrival.
Thanks to everyone who's submitted missions and detours for my one year spectacular. For those of you who haven't yet, please submit them soon and vote on the ones that are already there. Remember to keep whatever you promise to do in return, to things everyone around the world can do. It's possible that I may have to fulfill these missions in Nepal instead of Kyrgyzstan since once I start the Pamir highway there may not be much of anything but mountains. If that's the case, I apologize to those of you who made Kyrgyzstan specific missions and I'll do what I can to adapt them to Nepal (I don't think they play dead goat polo there unfortunately though).Soundtrack: Break On Through (The Doors)